The Montgomery Ward catalog has been called one of the most influential American books ever published. One such nominating committee, the Grolier Club, stated: “The mail order catalogue has been perhaps the greatest single influence in increasing the standard of American living. It brought the benefit of wholesale prices to city and hamlet, to the crossroads and prairie.”
Aaron Montgomery Ward was born in Chatham, New Jersey in 1844 and his family went west to Niles, Michigan in 1853 where his father took up the cobbler”s trade. Aaron left school at 14 to work in brickyards and a barrel factory where he learned his most valuable lesson: “I learned I was not physically or mentally suited for brick or barrel making.”
After clerking at a shoe store and then a country store, earning $6 a month,
plus board, Ward was then ready to go to the big city. At that time Chicago was home to 30,000 people and known, none too affectionately, as “The Mudhole of the Prairies.” The streets were barely above the level of Lake Michigan and covered with bottomless muck.
But by the late 1860s, Chicago was teeming with post-Civil War energy. Fifteen railroad lines moved 150 trains a day out of the busy terminals. Like thousands of other young men Ward arrived in Chicago in 1866 and began work in various dry goods firms, including one operated by Marshall Field. He became a salesman, his income rising to a whopping $12 a week.
As he made tedious rounds through the mud in his horse and buggy, he took particular notice of the country stores along his route. They were gathering places with potbelly stoves and moonlighted as meeting places for local farmers. However these outlets were far from helpful when the farmers had to actually buy something. Selections were small and prices high. Storekeepers were at the mercy of big-city wholesalers.
After considering how he could help the disadvantaged farmer, Ward decided on a mail order store. He planned to set up in the big city where he could easily reach suppliers and buy in quantity to get the best prices. He could send a catalog listing his prices to farmers who could order and receive their items by mail, cash on delivery. It was not a new idea but the few direct mail firms at the time sold only one or two items. Ward was going to bring the whole store to the farmer.
Ward worked and saved. He talked about his idea with friends and associates. They all agreed he would go broke trying to sell goods sight-unseen to back country folk. He was not dissuaded. By 1871 he finally saved enough money to buy a small amount of goods at wholesale prices. On October 8, 1871 the Great Chicago Fire engulfed the city for 30 hours. Every building in a 4-square mile area was destroyed. So was Ward”s inventory.
Ward went back to work. By August 1872 he scraped up money and convinced a few people to join him, raising $1600 in working capital. He printed up a one-page price list and hand-addressed the first circulars to the Grangers, a co-operative farm supply organization. One of his earliest price lists contained 163 items under the banner Supplied By The Cheapest Cash House In America. Most of the items cost one dollar, including clothing, a 6-view stereoscope, and a backgammon set.
For most of 1873, Ward”s mailbox was bare. His partners wanted out and Ward—who still had his sales job—managed to buy them out of their small investments. The Panic of 1873 quickly sunk even the established traditional retailers.
His business was ridiculed by the Chicago Tribune as a disreputable firm “hidden from public gaze with no merchandise displayed and reachable only through the post office.” Under threat of a lawsuit, the Tribune printed a retraction. The retraction was added to the next flyer and sales increased!
About this time, ready-made clothing began appearing. The accepted belief was that no two people had the same measurements; therefore tailors were needed to make quality garments. But the crunch for uniforms in the Civil War had demonstrated that certain combinations of measurements could be standardized. Ward told his faraway customers: “Give your age and describe your general build and we will nine times out of ten give you a fit.”
Ward wrote all the early copy. He always included a message in his catalogs, often giving money-saving tips. “It is best to make your order around five dollars. Shipping charges on small orders will eat up your savings. Consider joining a buying club with your neighbors.”
Consumers came to trust Ward”s unseen store, and business grew rapidly. He bound his first catalog in 1874, and in 1875 the book expanded to seventy-two pages. Worrying that he might become too big, Ward took an ad in Farmers Voice just to reassure his customers he had not lost touch with their needs.
In 1893 Ward sold controlling interest to George R. Thorne who had come on as a partner late in 1873. Ward remained president, but after a while he stopped attending board meetings. The last twenty years of his life were spent preserving the Chicago waterfront as a park for the people. He spent over two hundred thousand dollars of his own money to defend the public”s right to open space.
His long-time efforts to prevent the erection of buildings along Lake Michigan won him the title of The Watch Dog of the Lake Front. At one time there were forty-six building projects planned in the park, and he fought them all successfully, losing many influential friends along the way. Finally, just before his death in 1913 he won his final legal battle to forever keep the waterfront an open area.
The Tribune, no friend of Montgomery Ward, wrote: “We know now that Mr. Ward was right, was farsighted, was public spirited. That he was unjustly criticized as a selfish obstructionist or as a fanatic. Before he died, it is pleasant to think Mr. Ward knew that the community had swung round to his side and was grateful for the service he had performed in spite of misunderstanding and injustice.”
It’s amazing to think he was the forerunner for all the mail order catalogues that would follow, and that shopping by mail would become commonplace. Imagine what Mr. Ward would think of telemarketing or the incredible world of ebay!
Quite honestly, I make most of my book purchases online, plus a great many other things, from toys to cabinet hardware. The most awesome things I’ve purchased online recently are reproduction Jadeite cabinet knobs and glass handles and a really cool neck and shoulder heating pad stuffed with flaxseed. Received any interesting deliveries in the mail lately?
ORDER A REPRODUCTION CATALOGUE FROM AMAZON